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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

10 MARCH, 2014

Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Crucial Difference Between Success and Mastery

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The lost art of learning to stand “where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could.”

“You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far,” Steve Jobs cautioned. “There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, “unless it comes through your own fault.” And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?

That’s precisely what curator and art advocate Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — an exploration of how “discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground” and why this “improbable ground of creative endeavor” is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong “magpie curiosity about how we become,” crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of “magpielike borrowings” filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.

Female archers, lantern slide, c. 1920. (Public domain via Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives.)

Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University’s varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:

There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.

In the archers’ doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book — far more important than success (hitting the bull’s-eye) is the attainment of mastery (“knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again”), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn’t unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.) Lewis writes:

Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.

Thomas Edison

This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Another less famous Edison anecdote paints this in even more vivid detail: When one of his inventions failed, Edison locked himself in his lab with five of his men and declared he would not come out until the puzzle was solved; he spent sixty-four hours working continuously with no sleep, until he conquered the challenge, then slept for thirty hours to recover.)

In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word “failure” — a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, “a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth” — is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:

The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.

In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: “blankness,” which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid — even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:

Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect — one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist — resilience, reinvention, and grit — but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.

[…]

When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.

One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the “deliberate incomplete.” (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”) Lewis writes:

We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.

There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.

A related concept is that of the “near win” — those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:

At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.

Here, again, it’s useful to consider Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindsets, in which she found that students who equated success with a reflection of their natural ability learned much less than those who saw it as a product of their effort; the former group dreaded failure as a tell-tale sign of their insufficiency, while the latter saw in it an invitation to change course, to try harder, to grow.

But while a “near win” may be an invitation to grow, it is anything but comfortable. One of the most easily discernible manifestations of its anguish is found among Olympic medalists. Lewis cites the work of Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, who found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. It is a phenomenon first discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who in the 1980s found that people were far more frustrated about missing a flight by five minutes than by thirty. And yet the “near win” is also the reason why silver medalists are more likely to win the gold next time around — victory seems possible, yet not as far away as for the bronze medalists, so the “near win” is experienced as a nudge to sharpen focus and try harder rather than a discouragement. Lewis writes:

A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events. We consider temporal distance as we do spatial distance. (Visualize a great day tomorrow and we see it with granular, practical clarity. But picture what a great day in the future might be like, not tomorrow but fifty years from now, and the image will be hazier.) The near win changes our focus to consider how we plan to attain what lies in our sights, but out of reach.

[…]

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.

Herbert Ponting, 'Grotto in an iceberg,' Antarctica, 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.)

For one of her illustrative case studies, Lewis turns to the legacy of pioneering polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1911 expedition to the South Pole is considered by many the greatest unfinished journey of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and “the world’s most tragically famous failure” — Scott and his entire crew perished before reaching the end of their quest. A century later, modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders set out to complete Scott’s journey, which would be the longest unsupported polar expedition in human history — 1,800 miles or, as Lewis puts it, “the length of sixty-nine marathons back to back.” She considers what might possess people like Saunders to attempt such seemingly deadly feats:

People driven by a pursuit that puts them on the edges are often not on the periphery, but on the frontier, testing the limits of what it is possible to withstand and discover.

Implicit to testing the limits, however, is acknowledging them — and, more importantly, surrendering to them in a way that gives us more freedom. This notion of surrender — which Alan Watts expounded as he pioneered Eastern philosophy in the West half a century ago — is central to Lewis’s model of fruitful failure. She turns, once more, to Saunders:

Out in the Arctic, he said, “I was aware that I was responsible for my own survival,” but eventually settled into a “wonderful feeling of ‘Well, I can’t think of a better word than surrender,’” as he described the process of nonresistance to wind, temperatures, and the pain that had brought him there.

[…]

I wondered for two years after first speaking to Saunders about this idea of surrender. How do you lean into pain when you’re trying to forge ahead in one of the most inhospitable places on our planet? Why is that helpful? … Surrender, we both admitted, might be an imperfect word to describe it. The term is often synonymous with the white-flag retreat of loss in the context of battle. Yet when feelings of failure come with their own form of pain, empowerment through accepting it — surrender — and pivoting out of it can be more powerful than fighting. The kind of surrender that Saunders means is more akin to Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati, to love your fate. “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

Once again, Lewis provides an alternative to a culturally misunderstood word for an important concept. To explain the essence of this kind of surrender, she turns to the martial art of aikido, which derives its power from “strategic nonresistance.” (If you’ve ever engaged with Eastern philosophy or listened to the teachings of Tara Brach, you might be familiar with the oft-cited aphorism “What you resist persists.”) Far from easeful resignation, this concept makes aikido one of the most challenging martial arts to master, precisely because “strategic nonresistance” is the exact opposite of what eons of evolution have optimized our minds and bodies to do — to tense up, snap into fight-or-flight mode, and enlist all of our willful resistance in the basic survival instinct of self-protection. And yet the central principle of aikido, which brings to mind Bruce Lee’s famous advice to “be like water” (though he practiced a different martial art), is a philosophical one rather than a physical one. Lewis explains:

Aikido embodies the idea that when we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. In aikido, an uke, the person who receives an attack from the thrower, or nage, absorbs and transforms the incoming energy through harmony and blending. There is no word for competitor, only for the one who is giving or receiving the energy.

She relates this concept of surrender to our relationship with death:

When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.

(Once again, Alan Watts’s influential ideas on the subject would have been an excellent reference here. John Updike also contemplated the question: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Artist Candy Chang puts it even more succinctly: “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”)

But there’s a concept that illuminates surrender even more brilliantly than death. Lewis points to zero:

Zero is the oddest number. Its value is foundational and yet unstable; it has what seems to be inexplicable properties. It can threaten some — multiply or divide a number by zero and you wipe it out. Or it can act neutrally — add or subtract zero from any number and it remains. For centuries, it has been a limit that most civilizations have preferred not to consider, with the exception of Hindu societies, which embraced it. It is on the threshold, separating positive from negative, all that we want from all that we don’t. Surrender, like zero, doesn’t translate into an appreciable form. It is like the duende of the artist, living on the line in between worlds where intellect, intuition, and force meet, and unendurable beauty is born of enduring travails.

For all of our attempts to describe surrender, discerning its place in our lives feels like trying to engage with that elusive number without which nothing makes sense, and through which all that we thought we knew falls down slack like a rag doll in our lap. And this is the trouble with the rebounding effect of zero: we have to first let ourselves get extremely low to go there.

More than anything, however, the case for surrender stands in stark contrast with the conditioning of our age, an era of endless distractions from discomfort. And yet the very “moronic inferno” Saul Bellow lamented is what makes this capacity for surrender an increasingly valuable psychological commodity. Lewis writes:

In an age where we can skip from idea to idea, with countless distractions to divert us, absconding from painful places is easy. How do we stand in a place where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could? How do we practice the aikido move of surrender? The perception of failure, the acceptance of the low, is often the adhesive.

Frederick Douglass

In another of her illustrative examples, Lewis turns to legendary social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass, who believed in the power of visual culture a century before Susan Sontag made the cultural case for photography and a century and a half before the age of selfies. Long before science would illuminate the visual bias of our brains, Douglass intuited the power of images:

Frederick Douglass was sure, even in the face of war, that the transportive, emancipatory force of “pictures,” and the expanded, imaginative visions they inspire, was the way to move toward what seemed impossible. An encounter with pictures that moves us, those in the world and the ones it creates in the mind, has a double-barreled power to convey humanity as it is, and, through the power of the imagination, to ignite an inner vision of life as it could be. The inward “picture making faculty,” Douglass argued, the human capacity for artful, imaginative thought, is what permits us to see the chasm accurately, our failures — the “picture of life contrasted with the fact of life.” “All that is really peculiar to humanity . . . proceeds from this one faculty or power.” This distinction of “the ideal contrasted with the real” is what made “criticism possible,” that is, it enabled the criticism of slavery, inequity, and injustice of any kind.

It helps us deal with the opposite of failure, which may not be success—that momentary label affixed to us by others — but reconciliation, aligning our past with an expanded vision that has just come into view.

[…]

The “key to the great mystery of life and progress” was the ability of men and women to fashion a mental or material picture and let his or her entire world, sentiments, and vision of every other living thing be affected by it. Even the most humble image held in the hand or in the mind was never silent. Like the tones of music, it could speak to the heart in a way that words could not. All of the “Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Photographs and Electrotypes, good and bad, [that] now adorn or disfigure all our dwellings,” Douglass said, could allow for progress through the mental pictures that they conjured. He went on to describe “the whole soul of man,” when “rightly viewed,” as “a sort of picture gallery[,] a grand panorama,” contrasting the sweep of life with the potential for progress in every moment.

What Douglass intuited, Lewis argues, is the notion of “aesthetic force” — that transcendent power of a Rothko painting or the “overview effect” of cosmic awe that astronauts experience when gazing at Earth from space or the transcendence of a life-changing encounter with wild ospreys, those visceral experiences that leave us somehow transformed. Lewis writes:

Our reaction to aesthetic force, more easily than logic, is often how we accept with grace that the ground has shifted beneath our feet.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968

So powerful is aesthetic force, Lewis argues, that it can alter our behavior both as individuals and as a culture — the iconic Earthrise photograph has been credited with galvanizing the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Underpinning aesthetic force is a mechanism similar to that behind the “deliberate incomplete”:

When we’re overcome by aesthetic force, a propulsion comes from the sense that, until that moment, we have been somehow incomplete. It can make us realize that our views and judgments need correction. It can give these moments “elasticity” and “plasticity”…

Lewis dons her art historian hat to tie this back to failure:

The mechanics of how we see and remember when we are moved is one way that we move forward out of near ruin. Douglass was describing, as he saw it, our pictorial process of creating reality.

It is as true of vision as it is of justice — distorted, flat, horizontal worlds become more full when we accept that the limit of vision is the way we see unfolding, infinite depth. Painted and printed images used to be just flat bands of color until the invention of perspectival construction and with it, the vanishing point — the void, nothing, the start of infinite possibility. Moving toward a reality that is just, collectively and for each of us individually, comes from a similar engagement with an inbuilt failure. A fuller vision comes from our ability to recognize the fallibility in our current and past forms of sight.

[…]

What we lose if we underestimate the power of an aesthetic act is not solely talent and freedom of expression, but the avenue to see up and out of failures that we didn’t even know we had. Aesthetic force is not merely a reflection of a feeling, luxury, or respite from life. The vision we conjure from the experience can serve as an indispensable way out from intractable paths.

[…]

Seeing the uncommon foundations of a rise is not merely a contrarian way of looking at the world. It has, in many cases, been the only way that we have created the one in which we are honored to live.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

Indeed, history is strewn with such “uncommon foundations.” There’s Joan Didion, who faced a slew of uncompromising rejections before becoming one of the most celebrated writers of our time, or Herman Melville who Lewis reminds us died a penniless customs agent some seventy years before Moby-Dick would receive critical acclaim as one of the greatest novels of all time. (Melville himself, for all his capacity for the joyful, was all too painfully aware of the tragic in his own life when he lamented, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”)

Lewis’s point, of course, isn’t to bemoan the occasional cruelties of fate and commiserate with its famous victims but to remind us that we choose how we designate and how we relate to our own experience, and out of that choice, especially amidst tribulation, springs our capacity for triumph:

The moment we designate the used or maligned as a state with generative capacity, our reality expands. President John F. Kennedy once mentioned an old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Failure is an orphan until we give it a narrative. Then it is palatable because it comes in the context of story, as stars within a beloved constellation.

Once we reach a certain height we see how a rise often starts on a seemingly outworn foundation. . . .

When we take the long view, we value the arc of a rise not because of what we have achieved at that height, but because of what it tells us about our capacity, due to how improbable, indefinable, and imperceptible the rise remains.

The Rise is a dimensional read in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement it with Daniel Dennett on how to make good mistakes and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Debbie Millman’s Fail Safe.

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28 FEBRUARY, 2014

Advice from Artists on How to Overcome Creative Block, Handle Criticism, and Nurture Your Sense of Self-Worth

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Mastering the balance of restriction and imaginative play, or why unbridling your self-worth from your professional success is essential for happiness.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. But true as this general sentiment may be, it isn’t always an easy or a livable truth — most creative people do get stuck every once in a while, or at the very least hit the OK plateau. What then?

Not too long ago, Alex Cornell rallied some of our time’s most celebrated artists, writers, and designers, and asked them to share their strategies for overcoming creative block. Now comes Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists (public library) — a lavishly illustrated compendium at once very similar in spirit and sufficiently different in execution, in which Danielle Krysa, better-known as The Jealous Curator, asks artists from around the world working in various media to crack open the vault of their unconscious and explore the darkest elements of the creative process, from overcoming idea-stagnation to dealing with both self-criticism and external naysayers. In addition to sharing their broader thoughts on the demons and rewards of creativity, each artist also offers one specific block-busing exercise — a “Creative Unblock Project” — to try the next time you feel stuck.

But what makes the project particularly noteworthy is that while it features reflections from visual artists, most of their insights apply just as usefully to other creative endeavors, from writing and to entrepreneurship to, even, science.

Trey Speegle

One of the recurring themes in dealing with creative block, which a number of the artists articulate, has to do with mastering the right balance between freedom and constraint. Mixed-media artist Trey Speegle puts it perfectly:

You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.

Aris Moore

Multidisciplinary artist Aris Moore observes:

When I am stuck … I just search for excitement, but not too hard. It is when I find myself playing more than trying that I find my way out of a block.

Lisa Golightly

Painter Lisa Golightly adds:

I give myself permission to just make for the sake of making without any thought to the outcome, which can be surprisingly hard. … What I would tell my younger self is this: There is no “right” way to make art. The only wrong is in not trying, not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there — just get to work and make something.

Lisa Congdon

The wonderful Lisa Congdon — with whom I’ve collaborated for some time — offers a “Creative Unblock Project” to explore that interplay between structure and imaginative play:

Choose one thing you love to draw or paint (and feel comfortable drawing or painting) already: an animal, object, a person, whatever. For thirty days, draw or paint that thing thirty different ways, a different way every day. You can use different mediums, expressions, positions, colors, whatever. Each day, push yourself to do something much different than the day before, but keep the subject the same. See how keeping one element constant (in this case, the “thing” you love to draw or paint) can allow you to break out creatively in other ways.

Ben Skinner

Many artists also emphasize the importance of stepping away from the work when feeling stuck — a strategy that makes sense, given how crucial the unconscious processing stage of the creative process is. Multidisciplinary artist Ben Skinner captures this:

I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me.

Ashley Goldberg

And then there’s the Buddhist-like approach of just letting the block happen rather than resisting it feverishly or grasping after an immediate resolution. Illustrator Ashley Goldberg reflects:

If it is a bigger creative block, I try to ride it out and just let it happen. I will still draw, but most pieces will end up in the trash, and that’s OK. I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.

When asked to contrast the state of creative block with its opposite, most artists describe some version of what psychologists call “flow”. Collage and mixed media artist Anthony Zinonos describes that optimal state:

I have total clarity and nothing but great ideas bubble up in my head. It’s like being on a creative high; you’re on top the world and work seems to be just pouring out of you.

Mary Kate McDevitt

Hand-lettering artist Mary Kate McDevitt shares a similar experience:

I could be working without headphones, with someone right next to me trying to get my attention, and I am completely oblivious to anything but the task at hand… One minute it’s 8 p.m., the next minute I’ve finished my project and it’s 3 a.m. That’s pretty magical.

Ashley Percival

Illustrator Ashley Percival echoes:

I don’t want the day to end, because I need to be creative forever! Sometimes I forget to eat, then I realize that I must move from my desk—so I make breakfast at two in the afternoon.

Sydney Pink

And yet this state of “flow” isn’t the same thing as the mythic divine inspiration. Illustrator Sydney Pink captures this perfectly:

The idea of divine inspiration and an aha moment is largely a fantasy. Anything of value comes from hard work and unwavering dedication. If you want to be a good artist you need to look at other artists, make a lot of crappy art, and just keep working.

But the most powerful part deals with the darkest underbelly of the creative life — criticism. Some artists, like painter Amanda Happé, turn a deaf ear to naysayers and focus on satisfying their own soul instead:

It’s one of the most beautiful things about doing this — you don’t have to care. No one gets to have their say and have it stick. No one can wrestle the pencil out of your hand. You get to keep going in absolute defiance.

Ashley Percival puts it even more simply:

You can’t please everyone — people will have art that they like and dislike — the main thing is that you as an artist are happy with your work.

Ceramics artist Mel Robson offers one of the wisest meditations on the subject:

I think it’s important to remember that making art is a process. It is never finished. The occupation itself is one of process, exploration, and experimentation. It is one of questioning and examining. Each thing you make is part of a continuum, and you are always developing. You don’t always get it right, but I find that approaching everything as a work in progress allows you to take the good with the bad. You’re never going to please everyone. Take what you can from criticism, and let go of the rest. When it comes to constructive criticism, I welcome that and think it is important to have people you can discuss your work with who will give you honest and constructive feedback. It’s not always what you want to hear, but that is often exactly what is needed. It can be very confronting, but very useful.

Hollie Chastain

This brings us to the most poignant question: How to unbridle one’s work, whether lauded or criticized, from one’s sense of self-worth. Collage and mixed-media artist Hollie Chastain reflects:

I think as an artist it’s very easy to [equate self-worth with artistic success] because of the nature of the work. If you think of art as a job, then your product is so much more than hours invested. The product is a piece of yourself, so of course if the reception is not the greatest, then it can feel like a direct hit to who you are as a person. I think this happened a lot more when I was younger and still finding my way around. I would doubt my direction when a viewer wasn’t thrilled. The trick for me is not to put more distance between my work and myself, but to close that gap completely. I can see myself in the art that I create, and that builds a wall of confidence.

Julia Rothman

Illustrator Julia Rothman — who gave us the immeasurably wonderful The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — strips this sentiment down to its bare, most vulnerable essence:

When you put so much of yourself and your time into something, it’s hard to separate it from who you are.

Emily Barletta

Embroidery and fiber artist Emily Barletta reminds us that soul-satisfaction requires defining our own success:

I make art because the process of making art makes me happy. Being successful with it and doing it for personal fulfillment are separate ideas.

Creative Block. Complement with Brian Eno’s prompts for overcoming creative block, then revisit Bukowski’s bold poetic debunking of the ideal conditions and myths of creativity.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Alice Walker on Creativity

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“Creation is really a sustained period of bliss — even though the subject can still be very sad.”

To wonder what creativity is is among the chronic perplexities of the human condition. We’ve dissected its four essential stages, outlined its five steps of idea-production, and expounded theories about how it works. And yet the nature of creativity eludes us, perhaps because somewhere between the myth and the mechanics lies the simple truth that the creative spirit flies by its own accord, is accountable to no one, and differs for everyone.

In this lovely short segment from PBS’s American Masters, part of a feature documentary, one of the greatest writers of our time — the prolific and Pulitzer-winning Alice Walker — reflects on the nature of creativity with a beautiful and culturally necessary antidote to the “tortured genius” myth:

Creation is really a sustained period of bliss — even though the subject can still be very sad. Because there’s the triumph of coming through and understanding that you have, and that you did it the way only you could do it — you didn’t do it the way somebody told you to do it, you did it just the way you had to do it. And that is what makes us us.

In her altogether superb 1983 prose collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (public library), Walker considers a darker aspect of creativity amidst a cultural context of oppression, as she contemplates what “creativity” meant for Black women two generations earlier, who stifled their muses as they themselves were being stifled by the gruesome grip of slavery — women who “were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste” as they were being “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release”:

What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.

[…]

How was the creativity of the Black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years Black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a Black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist. Consider, if you can bear to imagine it, what might have been the result if singing, too, had been forbidden by law. Listen to the voices of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin, among others, and imagine those voices muzzled for life. Then you may begin to comprehend the lives of our “crazy,” “Sainted” mothers and grandmothers. The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short Story Writers, who died with their real gifts stifled within them.

[…]

Therefore we must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers knew, even without “knowing” it…

Complement with more notable thoughts on creativity from Leonard Bernstein, Charles Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, William S. Burroughs, Ira Glass, Albert Einstein, Neil Gaiman, T.S. Eliot, and other cultural icons.

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